What's my best language strategy for a quarter in Shanghai?
March 23, 2008 1:29 AM   Subscribe

Which Chinese dialect should I learn to best survive in Shanghai, and how? Difficulty: I have 6 weeks.

I'll very likely be spending 3-6 months in Shanghai as part of my job. The relocation includes a language tutor, but I'll only have access to one once I'm actually in China. I'd like to do whatever preparation I can before I actually get over there.

It looks like the two reasonable choices here are Shanghainese or Standard Mandarin. Wikipedia says they're mutually unintelligible, so it sounds like I need to make a commitment to one or the other. How do I make a decision on which one to learn?

As for the actual learning part, my friends recommended Rosetta Stone or some other software/thing I don't remember the name of. Any recommendations or experience here would be appreciated. I can spend about 10 hours a week doing interactive material, and another 5 hrs/week doing listening-only stuff at the gym.

If it matters, I have friends/co-workers who can probably help me 1 on 1 for an hour or two a week on either language.

English is the workplace language, but being able to pick up on the basics with my Chinese co-workers will be helpful. I have no idea where they are from or what they usually speak.
posted by 0xFCAF to Travel & Transportation around Shanghai, China (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely Mandarin.

Mandarin will be spoken by almost everybody in the city, and it will be the only language used in work or educational environments. The only people that won't be able to speak Mandarin will be old natives of the city, so unless you are going to work at a Nursing home Mandarin will almost always get you by.

Shanghainese is only spoken by natives of the city and like any big city there are lots of people from other places, so if you learned Shanghainese, there would be a huge amount of people who you couldn't communicate with, probably including a large portion of your workmates.

It's also easier to find study materials for Mandarin.

Check out Chinesepod for Chinese lesson podcasts
posted by afu at 2:09 AM on March 23, 2008

Here, try this: http://www.clavisinica.com/index.html

And yes, Mandarin is the way to go.
posted by bwg at 2:24 AM on March 23, 2008

Yes, I third the Mandarin. Shanghainese is still spoken by the older generation, but almost everyone will still understand you if you speak Mandarin as afu said.
posted by dragontail at 4:36 AM on March 23, 2008

Definitely Mandarin; anyone you need to interact with will speak it.

Shanghainese is still spoken by the older generation

While literally true (you could say the same thing about English in America), it's very misleading. Shanghainese is not some dying jargon; with nearly 14 million speakers, it's doing very nicely.
posted by languagehat at 5:12 AM on March 23, 2008

I would say Mandarin too. My cousin worked in Shanghai for a couple of years and he got by with just his knowledge of Mandarin. While Shanghainese may help you get better service in the local shops or foodstalls, you'll find Mandarin more useful when conversing with clients and co-workers, or when listening to news bulletins, for example.
posted by hellopanda at 5:48 AM on March 23, 2008

Yeah, definitely Mandarin. You'll meet lots of people on a daily basis who don't speak Shanghainese, and only rarely a person who speaks Shanghainese but no Mandarin.

I've used Rosetta stone software for Chinese, as well as Pimsleur, which is an audio only learning system. They are both unbelievably boring. It took me a huge amount of willpower to get through lessons on a consistent basis. And they're designed to work best if you do them on a near daily basis. So I think they are of limited usefulness for realistic progress in language. However, since you're just looking for a base upon which to build when you arrive and can get 'real' interactive instruction, I'd lean towards Pimsleur, because it'll help you more with your tones. It's also more convenient, because you can put it on an mp3 player and do the lesson while walking, driving, etc. Another not-so-great thing about Pimsleur is that it teaches you a rather formal style of speaking that isn't as practical as I would prefer.

That being said, any decent textbook and a good tutor for 1 hour a day will blow any of these systems out of the water. You'll be able to find both are readily available in Shanghai. Good luck!
posted by bluejayk at 6:49 AM on March 23, 2008

If you have six weeks, I would focus on learning sentence structure (Chinese grammar is similar to English grammar, but simpler!) and a few basic phrases and greetings. Also learn the simplified Chinese characters for those greetings. If you do this in six weeks you'll be well on the way to mastering basic Chinese. Once you're there, learn how to write Chinese. By the time you leave you will be able to have very basic conversations. It's more than most ex-pats ever learn!
posted by KokuRyu at 10:22 AM on March 23, 2008

@ languagehat: Yes, I admit it is misleading, but you'll have to understand the current situation in the city. The user base is still big statistically, but it is somewhat irrelevant if most of these speakers can speak (and prefer) Mandarin. Beginning the last decade-ish, the current school generation don't use it any more, even talking to their parents and friends. Mandarin is the preferred dialect. You'll find that Shanghainese is still preferred by the older generation though.

I guess my point is that there isn't any big point in learning Shanghainese any more, as the user base is shrinking. On top of this, Mandarain is infinitely more useful.
posted by dragontail at 10:35 AM on March 23, 2008

A very good and FREE! source is www.fsi-language-courses.com not only for Mandrin but many other languages.
posted by paulboc at 12:36 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

This may be of help to you.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 4:23 PM on March 23, 2008

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